China to crack down on copycat architecture

Farewell, Cloneville!

China to crack down on copycat architecture

Construction of architectural clones like Thames Town, outside of Shanghai, has been banned by the Chinese government. (Drew Bates/Flickr)

As part of a sweeping new set of restrictions that prohibits regional governments from green-lighting skyscrapers over 1,640 feet while limiting the construction of towers over 820 feet, the Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban Development is also putting the kibosh on the once-prevalent practice of erecting plagiaristic copycat structures and developments that, among other things, mimic the likeliness of Parisian landmarks and cutesy English market towns.

China’s knockoff architecture trend started in earnest in the early 1990s—one of the earliest examples was a now-demolished replica of Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel in Zhengzhou—and quickly gained popularity as it gave residents the chance to tour the world, architecturally speaking, without stepping foot outside of China. While the country’s sizable portfolio of faithfully duplicated—and often lawsuit-attracting—copycat buildings don’t necessarily gravitate toward a particular vernacular style, European “towns,” many of them located on the outskirts of Shanghai, have proved to be particularly popular. Thames Town, Holland Town, Venice Town, German Town, Sweden Town, and Sky City, a bizarro 12-square-mile housing district developed as a miniaturized ersatz Paris outside of Hangzhou, are just a few. Copycats of Chinese landmarks including an abbreviated Great Wall and Tiananmen Square, both in the wealthy Huaxi Village in the Jiangsu province, are also fairly common.

“Now, as in China’s past, imitation isn’t intended as flattery,” wrote Jack Carlson for Foreign Policy in 2012. “The ancient parallels for these copycat projects suggest that they are not mere follies, but monumental assertions of China’s global primacy.”

This dubious, double take-inducing pastime, however, will soon come to an end as the Chinese government moves to champion local design and crack down on the cloning of architectural styles and landmark structures belonging to other countries. As the BBC reported, the ministry specifies that “plagiarizing, imitating, and copycatting” is now verboten in the construction of new buildings, while “large, foreign, and weird” designs will be limited. Avoiding copycat architecture will be particularly important in the construction of sports stadiums, exhibition centers, museums, and other large, culturally significant buildings per the government statement.

fake eiffel tower in China
Something in this skyline is not like the others. (Steve Jurvetson/(Flickr)

Moving forward, the Chinese government also aims to “strengthen cultural confidence, show a city’s features, exhibit the contemporary spirit, and display the Chinese characteristics” in new building projects.

In an article published in the state-run Global Times, the general consensus from the social media-using Chinese public on the governmental ban on “notorious copycat architectures” was reported to be mostly supportive.

Per the Times, several users of China’s top social media site Weibo said that they had grown bored of the “fake, shoddy versions of foreign buildings in many third and fourth-tier Chinese cities.” One user claimed that a replica of the White House in Jiangsu “burned my eyes” when she first laid eyes on it.

Speaking to the Times, Han Feng, head of the department of landscape architecture at Tongji University, noted that local housing authorities real estate investors should have no problem looking for inspiration in their own backyard. “In fact, China itself has lots of outstanding works in history with its rich architectural culture,” she said. “Rather than simply imitating and copying foreign buildings, it is urgent for architects and the public to know about and learn from our own profound architectural art.”

China instituted a similar ban on “oversized, xenocentric, weird” architecture in 2016 but apparently that didn’t stick.

It’s worth noting that China’s architectural copycat trend hasn’t always just involved mimicking famous foreign landmarks. In 2013, construction on a close facsimile of the Zaha Hadid Architects-designed Wangjing SOHO shopping complex in Beijing, then under-construction, also kicked off in the city of Chongqing.